Happy Birthday, Ma!

I was supposed to be in New York City today, honoring the life of my precious mommy, but I got rained out, so guess what? I’m dedicating a blog to her!

On this date, July 29th, in 1924, an amazing baby name Genevieve Josephine was born in Palmer, Massachusetts, or that’s the way the story goes. Back then the records weren’t always so accurate. Ma always said that she may have been born on the 27th or 28th. But the accepted date was July 29th, and that’s when we always celebrated the date of her miraculous birth. Ma was someone worthy of many celebrations!

Children never want to think that their parents had lives before they were born. Admittedly, I didn’t know enough about her younger years until after she passed away.

Genevieve’s parents came to the United States via Ellis Island from Poland and were largely uneducated. However, Genevieve was a hard working student at Palmer High School. She always spoke with pride about graduating in 1942. The first picture (above) is her graduation picture. Genevieve, being a daddy’s girl, would hold tight to the dream of someday going to Czestochowa, Poland to visit a monastery called Jasna Gora, home of the world famous Black Madonna, to honor her father by lighting a candle for him there. Maybe Genevieve, being a small town girl, couldn’t dream big enough to think that this would ever come true. But it did. One of her future daughters would make sure of it.

Genevieve worked what some would now call “menial jobs.” But she wouldn’t remember them that way. World War II was raging in Europe and Asia and Genevieve would be a part of the effort to support the troops. When the war was over she would marry a striking but troubled young soldier named Albert and together they would eventually have six babies. All of those children were girls, the first one born in 1951, the year after they were married, and the last in 1966, when Genevieve was 42 years old, quite a feat at that time in history.

Genevieve gave everything and more for her six children, but she never had the comfort of being a housewife, for Genevieve and Albert were not rich by any means. They both had to work full time jobs in order to have a safe place to live, a decent car to drive, and nice things for the children. Genevieve and Albert didn’t seem to care much about that, because they had each other and their six girls.

Then one cold winter’s day in 1977, Genevieve no longer had Albert, because he died suddenly. She had to go on alone and somehow fight through life without her only love. Genevieve kept going to work and keeping her family afloat even though her spirit was ripped away from her without warning. It would take her a decade and a half to get it back. Meanwhile, her beloved children began to scatter and break apart.

Many years after losing Albert, and as her six children struggled to find their own footing, Genevieve found a new and unexpected love: traveling with her youngest daughter, though that love would be fraught with constant worry, as her family fell apart. As strong and as perfect as her love was, it just never seemed to be enough to mend the destructive forces at work around her. As much as she loved traveling, the loss of the love of a few of her daughters, and the death of her beloved husband couldn’t ever be replaced. She would never be able to fully enjoy life again, though there were happy times. She held her head up and moved forward.

In the end, Genevieve went further than she ever thought she would: to that monastery in Czestochowa, Poland to honor her father, to the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, and on some pretty great road trips to most of the 50 states, including Alaska and Hawaii. In 2004, Genevieve took her final road trip and never looked back.

Or, maybe she did. But as her youngest daughter and travel companion, I believe there came a time when she said, I’ll see you when you get here, and chose to truly rest in peace.

Seventeen years is a heck of a long time to be without her, but in some ways it’s a relief that she is in that “better place” and away from a few individuals who still insist on tarnishing a legacy of love, from a heart so pure that everyone should be so lucky to know such beauty. Sometimes I wonder why I’ve fought cancer so hard when I’ve had some pretty great opportunities to be with her again, forever. My love of life won out, but next time, who can tell.

For now…

I love you, dear Genevieve Josephine, and I will spend the rest of my life defending your honor, no questions asked, because I know you deserve better. You deserve the best. I will make up for anyone foolish enough to think differently.

Happy Birthday.

California Reunion

Hey, if you don’t mind I’m going to take a break from talking about living with a chronic illness for a post or two. I have to tell you about my reunion with California!

This joyous reconnection with the Golden State was extra special because it came so frighteningly close to not happening. In fact, as I said in my last post, which I wrote while I was on the road, the trip got cancelled twice, the first time because of cancer, the second time because of COVID19. For weeks I was sure that once again something would stop me from going, that it wasn’t meant to be. It was so nice to be wrong! And the trip could not have been more perfect.

If you said that I’m kind of “prone” to hiking trips, you would not be mistaken. However, this wasn’t a hiking trip. Which is not to say that I didn’t do any trekking. Of course I did! But the entire plan was based around seeking out graffiti in Southern California and born from seeing the works of a professional photographer on Instagram who travels the U.S. taking pictures of really cool stuff. I did my research and strung several sights together, then figured that while I was there I may as well just take another week to see some old favorites, and there was my California reunion!

I lived in Los Angeles for five years from 1995 through 2000, and traveled extensively in and around the state. I guess I didn’t really realize until now how blessed I was and am to have been able to do that. It’s the only place I’ve ever lived other than Massachusetts, where I was born and currently reside, and I have to say that for me, a lover of the American West, there could not have been a better place to be. Mother Nature took one of everything amazing and tossed it into California. Sometimes, more that one of everything amazing. Though I’ve been a million other places around the world, I’ve never quite fallen in love with anywhere like I have the American West. I used to crucify myself for never having lived in a foreign country. How silly that all seems now.

Unlike most people, who think the desert is “too hot” and “boring”, I absolutely love it there. Deserts have ghost towns, tumbleweeds, and cactus. What’s not to love about that? I spent several days driving around the Salton Sea, an imposing but fascinating (and smelly) remnant of a failed experiment to lure vacationers and home buyers seeking the good life. If you’re like me and looking for graffiti, sand, and desolation, wow do you ever have to see the Sea! In addition to all that there’s Bombay Beach, an almost ghost that was revived as a quirky artist’s town, and Slab City, an “off the grid” settlement where people live for free. There’s lots of additional interesting art in Slab City as well as East Jesus, the eastern corner of the “squatters paradise.” I even did some research into one of the towns near the Salton Sea because I was inspired to use it for a locale in the book I’m writing. Such excitement from a place most people pass by without giving it a second thought! Is it any wonder why I choose to travel alone so often?

Didn’t I tell you that California has one of everything? Or, let’s make that more accurate: California has EVERYTHING!! Let me expand on that.

The post-graffiti part of my trip brought me to the Sierras, where the best ghost town in America nestles. No, Bodie isn’t in the desert, but it is at the end of a wild dirt road about twelve miles east of Bridgeport, California, and it is a state park, so there is a small fee (I paid $8) that goes to Bodie’s upkeep, which is impeccable. On the way I drove a few hundred miles of US 395, which I have to proclaim one of the country’s great highways. I stopped off in Lone Pine, which is still very much like the desert, and did a short and stunning hike to Mobius Arch in the Alabama Hills, where I also got a pretty special view of Mount Whitney, the highest point in the “lower 48” at 14, 505 feet. Did I mention that you can see Whitney through the arch, too? No, the thrills just never end.

Mono Lake and the Mono Basin are right outside Yosemite National Park. To me, Mono is so good it’s okay to skip Yosemite to see it. Don’t miss the short hike through the odd fantasy of the South Tufa Trail. You can bet that I didn’t!

Girl, take a breath…

The June Lake Loop is a sixteen mile drive around four lovely lakes at an elevation of 7,600 feet. Of course I had to get some hiking in here, and I encountered some bristlecone pines, that are said to be the oldest living things on Earth, even older than sequoias and redwoods. Even older than me! The loop was my last stop in the mountains before I headed back to the desert. I had to have one final jaunt in the hot sand before I came back to reality.

Death Valley Junction is the gateway to the park of the same name and a charming little desert hamlet with a hotel and opera house, much of which are beautifully hand painted by its former owner. Read her incredible backstory here. I’ve loved this town since I first saw it on a map as a dreamy-eyed teen, and it was so special to see it again before I moved on to Death Valley. Yes, I intended to hit the trails, but at 100 degrees at seven in the morning, I had to rethink my plans. Hiking had to be done in short bursts with plenty of time in the air conditioned SUV in between! Death Valley has been getting a lot of attention lately for record breaking temperatures, but the mercury varies greatly depending on what part of the park you’re in. I headed to Dante’s View to marvel at the salty Badwater Basin far below. It was twenty degrees cooler and with a hair-mussing wind. Lastly, no temperature was hot enough to make me miss wandering through the pastel hills of the Artist Palette. I felt like I’d fallen into a giant vat of ice cream!

Two weeks, a two thousand mile loop, and I just barely scratched the surface of the greatness of California. Oh well, looks like I’m just going to have to go back!

A Survivor’s Ball, South Carolina

We’ve been through some sh*t together, we’ve been through some sh*t on our own. And last week, we celebrated again by reuniting.

Survivors are not born. They’re made. By struggle. By sadness. By fear. By learning and doing and enduring. I’m not afraid to appear narcissistic by saying that we’ve done them all and more and we’re still here and we plan on being here for a long time.

My beloved niece Amanda is in South Carolina, I’m in Massachusetts. She’s been on a journey of recovery from liver failure for a year and a half now, I’ve been on a Stage IV lung cancer road trip since last September. Neither of us are supposed to be where we are now. But we are. So there.

Traveling is one of the things that I am. I don’t just do it. Though I’ve been criticized for “how” I travel by some who think there’s some hard and fast rules to doing it bigger, better, and faster than me, the truth is that long before I got on an airplane or in a car, I was visiting national parks and monuments on by bedroom floor with a map open in front of my unknowing eyes.  I was discovering foreign lands through age-old National Geographic magazines open on the hall steps. To have the ability to travel taken away from me by cancer was a crushing blow. So imagine the double whammy of rushing down a runway on an American Airlines jetliner and seeing my brave and beautiful niece again all in one compact trip! If this sounds petty to you, maybe you’ll understand someday. I hope you do, but I also hope you don’t have to find out the way we did.

I never cared how I got to where I was going. How much my ticket cost as compared to someone else’s or how good my hotel room was, neither. It ain’t what you’re going to remember when you’re on your death bed. I care even less now. Just let me get there again.

Where was your last trip? Portugal? Good for you. Me, Hell and back. Beat that. But now I plan to make up for lost time, and my sentimental journey to South Carolina was the first step. In a near future blog I’ll talk about the fun stuff we did in more detail, like the trip to the gem mine and the working farm, both with gift shops, of course! But for today, I’ll just recount the more personal aspects of the trip.

Last fall, when I started on my cancer road trip, there was little hope for me to be sitting at my computer and typing this in an upright position, much less boarding an airplane and going places, for a hellishly long time, if ever again. This foray, and my story in general, is one of those miracles you read about in books about someone else. Sure, I was only gone for four days. And no, it wasn’t nearly enough time to celebrate life with Amanda. But in another way, it was the trip of a lifetime, to mark my existence truly beginning again, to set a precedent for getting my life back to the way it was not so long ago, and yet ages ago.

Valentine’s Day had already passed, but not really. February 14th, February 16th, what does it matter? They’re all the same when you aren’t supposed to be where you are, but you are anyway, by sheer force of luck, love, spirit, and whatever else got you there. Lots of presents were shared, tons of dog love, chocolate, and Smarties. How can you go wrong?

We ran around like teenagers and caught up on things. Pretended to be miners in Greenville. Went bowling because the movie choices sucked. Ate at a neat restaurant like the one we’d found in Boone, North Carolina last year. Ended the trip at our favorite China Garden eating seven different flavors of chicken and shrimp and drinking jasmine tea. It was there that I read the Survivor’s Ditty I wrote for us:

Once Upon a Time
Two cute chicks
Survived bad sh*t
Then went out
For Chinese Food
And when they were done
They lived and loved
Like there’s no tomorrow
THE END

Sigh. If only it were that simple.

Early the next morning, I had to leave her and come home to reality and appointments and killing cancer. For four whirlwind days it was like I was normal again. Wait, I am normal again. Maybe I was never not normal? Still trying to figure all this out.

It’s been a hell of a ride, and it ain’t over yet. As I sit and type, I still have treatment to endure. Fingers crossed that I’ve been through the worst of it. And you can bet that I’m hankering for that next trip down the runway. Guess where it will be to? If you guessed South Carolina, you’re right.

Making up for lost time.

How We Road Tripped

 

 

 

With my recent cancer diagnosis, it’s kind of weird to be going back through old photo albums in order to write these autobiographical blogs. But I’m not giving up on them, anymore than I’m giving up on fighting cancer and winning! So let’s pick this story up where I left off: in 1993, when I learned to read maps and the road became my second home. Or more accurately, our second home, because my mom loved the road, too, even if she was always in conflict with leaving our stationary home.

Summer 1993. I get the big idea to do things a little differently. After mom and I cut our teeth with tour companies, and watched things we wanted to see go by out the bus window without being able to stop, we contacted our travel agent (gee, where have you heard that term lately!) and had her book us a cheap package to Las Vegas where we would rent a car and stay at the new Excalibur Hotel for seven nights. I pulled out my trusty road atlas and started planning. We could go to the Hoover Dam! And Death Valley! And Zion National Park! And the Grand Canyon! And…Jeez, could I really make this happen for us?

We’d also make a special stop at Death Valley Junction, a town that occupied a huge place in my current book, a long, handwritten saga of spoiled youth in Southern California. The Golden State was still my Promised Land, and no map made me hungrier than the one of Southern California. I found colorful names of cities and towns across the endearing area and assigned characters to the places. My favorite character of all hailed from Death Valley Junction, which I pictured to be something of a boom town. Small, but exciting. More on our discovery in a few.

Off we flew to Las Vegas and picked up our car. It was our first time in Sin City, and one of the only times I actually liked being there. I love Vegas now for only one reason: It’s a great jump off point to so many better places. Otherwise, I have little use for it, because I don’t care about gambling or the other activities the city offers. But back in 1993, Vegas was everything it was supposed to be. Given its proximity to California, even better.

In today’s world of “influencers” traveling the globe and showing their IG followers only the very best highlights of a grueling lifestyle, flying to Vegas and driving two hundred miles to Zion National Park must not seem like a big accomplishment. But to the me of 1993, a twenty-six-year-old small town girl with stars in her eyes, this was a heck of a big deal.  Did we make it everywhere we were supposed to go? Yes, indeed! But I’ll confess that we took a bus trip to Grand Canyon West, as it was easier to do it on an organized tour. This was long before glass bridges and expensive zip line packages. My favorite part of our trip had to be the Death Valley day. En route to what turned out to be one of my favorite national parks we stopped at Death Valley Junction and found not a boom town…but a ghost town! Another love was born. I’ve sought out as many as possible since then. Here’s a funny page from the magnetic album I made. Check out that cute Mustang!

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I had a dead end job at the time, and that’s what I went back to after this life-changing adventure. Friends got me into some local nightlife, but I never gave up on my pursuits of getting to other places. California wasn’t the only state where I found pleasing town names; I had them for every state. Places like Zook Spur, Iowa (another favorite!) and Summer Shade, Kentucky. Always whimsical, always good monikers to inspire stories that were flights of fancy. And always, always, places that made me yearn to get in a car and drive.

In 1994, I started to connect the dots between towns and to see how state highways, US highways, and freeways led to one another. I connected them so well that I came up with an enthusiastic endeavor to drive from Massachusetts to California and back again on a 9,400 mile road trip that would go through twenty-seven states, a dozen national parks and monuments, and to several other must-see spots in a time frame of forty-eight days. What did I expect my mom to say? A resounding “NO”! But Mom didn’t say no. Because we would have a once in a lifetime experience and be better people for it. Sure, Mom! Bless her heart. We set off in, are you ready for this, my 1990 IROC-Z convertible, all three of us total road trip virgins. Here’s one of my favorite unexpected moments on a trip that I still have not topped for length of time or mileage even twenty-five years later:

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No, you aren’t seeing things! That’s snow in July at Yellowstone National Park! And I was driving a lightweight Chevy Camaro convertible. Beat that, IG “influencers!”

After the excitement of the road, going back home to our tiny town was pretty tough. I understand a little bit of why musicians go so wild on concert tours then have a tough time readjusting to normal life again. And a pattern started to develop: just take any old job to make enough money to go on the next big adventure. The other idea that I got was that it was about time to get serious about moving to Los Angeles, my biggest dream. Like so many, I wanted to study acting and get into “the business.” I was already past my mid-twenties, so I couldn’t wait much longer. I wanted my mom to come with me, but because of my sister Jeanne she couldn’t even consider it. Jeanne needed her more than me. But as always, Mom swallowed her hurt and told me. “Go to California!”

Still, there was something in it for her: a four week one way road trip to drive my new Geo Tracker to Los Angeles, find a place to live, and fly back to pack up my less than worldly possessions. What turned into a “once in a lifetime experience” in 1994 was turning into much more than that and would continue to, even with Mom and me living on opposite coasts. This particular trip was 5,000 miles one way, and hit many more states that the first one didn’t, including what would become my favorite place on the globe, Southern Utah. Here we are at Monument Valley, circa 1995:

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How about that backdrop? It always reminds me of one of those fake pull-down things we used to pose in front of for school pictures!

While on this trip I took perhaps my favorite photo of Mom. Does anyone remember Highway 666 between Monticello, Utah and Gallup, New Mexico? It’s US 491 now. Ahh, them glory days of road trips!

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Notice how I had Mom in the devil holding the pitchfork pose. I was always putting her up to some bit of silliness, and she was such a good sport! Here’s another classic:

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Living in Southern California was a pretty intense experience for me. I was there for almost five years, and it was jam-packed full of exploration. If I had two days off from one of my many cruddy jobs I’d be on the road in the Tracker. Even one day would be sufficient. Once I drove 700 miles and was home the same evening! Usually, I was alone. But Mom came out several times and we took even more trips together, including a journey up the west coast to Seattle in 1997, and to Alaska the following year. My niece Amanda joined us one summer for fun closer to home, and I made my own trips back to the east coast.

Southern California was where I got my first taste of doing stuff that would freak people out. Notice me in one of the pictures at the top of this post getting ready to go hang gliding. Before that was sky diving!

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Yeah, like I said, quite a five years!

My next fabulous idea was to branch out to our second continent: Europe. Mom had three things on her Bucket List, and we did two of them on our 1999 European excursion: we went to the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain, and visited our homeland, Poland, where Mom paid tribute to her father at the Jasna Gora Monastery in Czestochowa, home of the famed Black Madonna. We also got to five other countries: Czech Republic, Slovakia, Germany, Austria, and Hungary. A month away from the comforts of home was a heck of a long time for Mom; she didn’t like the change in currencies or trying to keep up with the rest of the group we traveled with. By this time she already had a knee replacement and would be getting another one before long. I knew that the next time I went across the Atlantic she wouldn’t be along for the ride! But road trips were still of interest to us. We weren’t done with them yet!

By 2000, I was ready to go home. I felt like I did everything I wanted to do in L.A. and after studying acting for a couple of years and getting a bitter taste of “Hollywood,” wasn’t interested or impressed anymore. Mom was getting older, I missed her like crazy, and I wanted to spend the rest of her life with her. I did a solo road trip in the summer of 2000 to get back to Massachusetts and picked up more states toward my goal of visiting all fifty.

My timing, it turned out, was excellent. Mom and I still had four years together, and we made the most of them.

To be continued soon.

 

 

 

Traveling With Mom

 

Jeez, I’m obviously not very good at keeping up with this autobiography stuff. Only two posts all year! Last time I promised that I wasn’t going to take so long to get to the next installment in my life story, a promise that I wasn’t able to keep.  But now that my blog is the focus of my writing life, I may just do better!

At any rate, in case you want to read the first two chapters in the life of me, here’s the story of my first ten years, and here’s the post about my teenage years after losing my beloved Dad.

And now, to continue…

So there I was, with two new loves, writing and maps, but with a family shattered by the death of my dad. My interests didn’t stop me from heading down some wrong paths for a few years, even as I obsessed over road atlases my mom would buy me and created wild stories in my head and on paper about characters who traveled, fell in love, and were a heck of a lot happier than me.  At a very young age I found temporary infatuations with drinking, smoking, and being a pothead. I’m not sorry about doing any of those things, because by the time I was eighteen I didn’t care about any of that anymore, but did care about my stories and my Rand McNally’s. Back then I didn’t think I had any chance to travel or live a life even close to the stories I was writing. As it turns out, I was wrong.

Like a lot of people, my travels started out in the obvious place: Disney World, of course! I was fifteen, it was 1982, and Epcot was just opening. My mom scrounged up enough money for us to go together. It was my first flight, and we also went to Sea World, Cypress Gardens, and Busch Gardens, on a guided tour. The travel bug was planted! I have my mother to thank for that. Here’s a real oldie of me from that trip, at Cypress Gardens. I was really in my Ugly Duckling phase in ’82!

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Florida was a dream, but to me the real prize was getting to California. It didn’t happen for five years after Florida, though we took some smaller trips. Between 1982 and 1992, Mom and I also made it to Amish Country, Washington, DC, New Orleans for Mardi Gras, Nova Scotia, Hawaii, Bermuda, Niagara Falls and Atlantic City, New Jersey. Not a bad take for two ladies who had really never been anywhere! I’ve included a picture from each trip. I have to stress here, too, that this wasn’t all about me, it was about Mom, too. Traveling was a new beginning for her. Not an easy or quick one, but eventually a welcome escape from the black hole her life seemed to be without Dad. She always said that Dad would have been behind her decision to take me places. I’ll just bet he would have been pleased to know that she was finally starting to get some satisfaction out of life again.

Mom never forgot her first and only love. But I fully believe she was finally able to let go of him more after fifteen years, ten years of which we were going places together.

I held down a full-time position in a local factory during most of these years. Our travel schedule wasn’t too wild yet, so I was able to squeeze the trips into paid vacations. That would get trickier as our travels got more sophisticated…and personalized.

While Mom and I were bonding ever closer and getting better at the travel thing, relations in our family were falling apart. Assumptions of favoritism were rampant, resentments cropped up that my sister, who is disabled, had to be taken care of while Mom was gone. Money problems were always at the forefront of every conflict. Things didn’t get any better, though everyone said they wanted Mom to enjoy life. In fact, things got steadily worse. I used to say that we weren’t a dysfunctional family, because that would indicate we were functioning, just not the right way. Hardly the case with us; we weren’t functioning at all. Because of this, Mom and I could never be completely happy traveling. She was filled with guilt for leaving her daughter, who required total care, in the hands of someone else, when she had always provided for her. Being far away from home without the option to get back quickly was tough for her. Sometimes she would cry and worry. My job was to cheer her up. It didn’t always work, but we still had plenty of good times.

We didn’t give up. Soon, traveling would get even more interesting. We’d leave the guided tours behind and start making our own fun.

That’s when I learned how to read those maps I was obsessing over. The United States and Canada were soon to be our oyster!